Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Candace Chellew-Hodge on Straight Folks Telling Gay Stories: My Reflections

The final line of Candace Chellew-Hodge's recent essay at Religion Dispatches entitled "When Straight People Tell Gay Stories" hits me between the eyes:

But I long for the day when our community can come out from our closet of silence and be invited to tell our own stories—in our own voices.

Me, too, Candace.  I'm right with you in my longing for that day.

I've recently been embroiled in frustrating (non-)conversations at the Commonweal blog site with a someone who, as I explained in a previous posting, once invited me to email him to continue a conversation about the experience of gay Catholics, and who then simply ignored my email.  Because he issued his invitation in the public space of the Commonweal blog, where folks wouldn't know that he shut me right out of all conversation the moment I emailed him in response to his invitation, he gets to keep his good-guy, exemplary Catholic image.

While I'm reduced to silence, to the status of a non-person.  And while he has successfully reinforced the signal given me by many contributors to that blog, that I'm just not really welcome there--not in my own loud, outspoken gay skin.  

There are degrees of belonging and more belonging in the world (and churches) in which we live.  Some people in our society and in our religious communities belong more than others.

The latter are almost always white heterosexual males, or white males who successfully pass themselves off as heterosexual.  When the belongs-less groups speak in our own voices, we're told by the belongs-more group (i.e., white heterosexual males) that our testimony counts less.  Even when we're speaking right out of our own hard-earned experience and hard-earned base of knowledge.

Our humanity is excluded from the normative conversations that define cultural or religious identity, or political issues.  Because we ourselves are not normative.

White heterosexual males are normative.  They are the norm by which the humanity of other human beings is judged to be lesser or more than--by which other human beings are judged to belong more or belong less.  This is a theme I've been blogging (and reading) incessantly about these weeks, because it seems to me so critically important to the dynamics that will probably place Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in the White House in a few weeks.

Candace Chellew-Hodge makes her observation as a conclusion to her discussion of Timothy Kurek's new book The Cross in the Closet, in which he recounts his experience of living as a "gay" man for a year.  Though he's straight, he spent a year pretending to be gay, and then wrote a book about his experiences during that year.

As Chellew-Hodge notes, while it's wonderful that straight people care enough about what gay folks experience in various societies to try an experiment like this, what we cannot miss seeing in this story is that the mainstream media have a strong tendency to treat the first-hand testimony of LGBT voices as if that testimony is somehow suspect, since it comes from a belongs-less group of human beings.

But when a member of the belongs-more group provides the very same testimony from an experimental stint living as a member of the belongs-less group, the media perk up their ears.  Hence her conclusion: "I long for the day when our community can come out from our closet of silence and be invited to tell our own stories—in our own voices."

I know that Chellew-Hodge is right when she maintains that we're frequently willing to listen more carefully and respectfully to the voices of belongs-more people describing the experience of belongs-less people than we are willing to listen to the voices of the latter describe their own experience: I know this is correct for the following reason.

Until I read John Howard Griffin's book Black Like Me in the latter half of the 1960s, I had never given any careful thought--not in the least--to what the laws of segregation I took for granted as I grew up actually meant for those whom these laws targeted.  I had grown up never thinking about what it meant for a real human being to be unable to buy food when she was hungry and there happened to be no restaurant in the community through which she was traveling that sold food to black persons.  I had never thought about what it meant to be in need of a bathroom and to be unable to find a bathroom that would permit a person of color to use it.

I never thought about these or other myriad practical real-life consequences of the laws of segregation with which I grew up and which I casually took for granted until another white person who spent a year "pretending" to be black told me about his experiences.  And so the point I gradually came to recognize, as I thought about why I was willing to listen to Griffin but had not ever listened to the first-hand accounts of these same experiences from the many African Americans in my community: I discounted out of hand the testimony of black people because they were black people.

Until a white man explained the black experience (or a tiny portion of it, filtered through his optic as a person who could return to his white male privilege when his experiment had ended) to me . . . . It never even occurred to me, as I grew up, to ask any African American I knew to explain to me what segregation meant, in practical terms, to her or him.

I was predisposed to think of the humanity of people of color as less than my humanity, and to consider the real voices and testimony arising out of the actual, real-life experience of racial oppression as tainted testimony.  As skewed witness.  As less worthy of consideration than the very same testimony coming from the lips of a white man.

As I've thought about this over the years, I've realized that almost nothing in my educational experience from primary school through high school and right through college in any way challenged my racially-grounded preconceptions.  I was never asked, in any of my schooling, to read a book, essay, or poem by an African-American writer: not Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Phyllis Wheatley, Zora Neale Hurston, George Washington Carver, James Cone or Baldwin, and so on.

I did not read these authors--as shameful as this is to admit--until I took it on myself to design courses for myself during my years as a graduate student in theology in which I began to read African-American writers with deliberate intent to listen closely to their testimony.  For the first time in my entire life.  I continued this self-education after I obtained my first teaching position in an historically black university and realized it was imperative that I learn as much as possible about the cultural heritage, literature, philosophy, history, and lives of the people among whom I was now teaching.  And from whom I had to learn, if I expected to be a good teacher.

And so, as I repeat, I know that Candace Chellew-Hodge is correct: "But I long for the day when our community can come out from our closet of silence and be invited to tell our own stories—in our own voices."  The way I myself, through my formative years, treated the first-hand testimony of African Americans re: the African-American experience, is very much the way in which the first-hand testimony of LGBT people is still received by many sectors of the mainstream media and many religious communities.

As tainted, skewed testimony not worth a serious hearing.  Because it comes from the lips of belongs-less human beings.  Who cannot possibly be expected to provide credible testimony about their own lives.  Because anything they say will be special pleading and will be thwarted by their subhuman, non-normative status.

We can become a truly human community, and our communities of faith can regain credibility, only when we stop doing this to one another--and, in particular, to those we've shoved to the margins.  To those who have something of critical importance to tell the rest of us if we expect to make ourselves more human . . . .

The graphic is a photo of John Howard Griffin after he had taken treatments to darken his skin and while he lived as a black man; it's by Don Rutledge and is at the Smithsonian website.

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